2015, Rated PG, 127 minutes
Jupiter Ascending” poses one unique challenge: nearly any description of this flick invariably makes it sound way better than it is. The simple act, for example, of putting together words like “an average young woman discovers she’s the Earth-born heir to an interplanetary empire, and fights to protect the lives of all of humankind,” conjures thoughts of epic scale, grand consequence and sweeping mythical import. To describe her love interest as “a simmering half-wolf bounty hunter bred for strength, loyalty, and kicking ass,” might inspire thoughts of a turbo-charged two-fisted hero and would be, technically, accurate. Explaining the threat they face as “an immortal vampire Mafia from space” offers so much possibility for weirdness and fun that it might defy the imagination to hear the movie is actually, in every way, a total, baffling, incoherent fart.
“Oh, that’s just harsh,” you say. “It has a fabulous cast.” Fair enough. Channing Tatum as the dog-eared extra-terrestrial body guard is, if nothing else, a real acre of flesh and has never shown any fear of flexing for fun. He spends a solid 30 minutes of this film having forgotten to put his shirt back on, so if you want to call that acting, that’s fine. As a sneering business tycoon from another planet, Eddie Redmayne (nominated for an Oscar this year for “The Theory of Everything”) seems capable of wheezing out his lines as if he’s spent an hour frozen to a toilet in an unheated apartment. That level of ennui must be difficult to maintain, but somehow he manages it. And they say acting is mostly listening; if that’s the standard we’re measuring by, then yes, Mila Kunis is fabulous. As a simple everywoman who hasn’t the remotest clue what’s going on, she fabulously spends inordinate stretches dumbly regarding her costars as they yawn out their various revelations with all the urgency of a museum audio tour. Imagine if there was a Museum of Estate Law. Now imagine the audio tour. Now imagine you’re watching Kunis listening to it. That’s about a third of “Jupiter Ascending.”
“But it’s an action film,” you argue. “The stunts must be pretty cool.” OK, if you were impressed with that scene in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” where they tumble into a bottomless hell-pit, and fall and scream and fall and scream and fall and scream, then yeah, the stunts could qualify as pretty cool. There’s a great deal of falling and screaming. You may recall, however, even Bill and Ted grew fatigued enough with their predicament that they paused on their way to play a round of 20 questions. “Jupiter Ascending” suffers from no similar moment of reflection or intelligence.
Imagine if there was a Museum of Estate Law. Now imagine the audio tour. Now imagine you’re watching Mila Kunis listening to it. That’s about a third of “Jupiter Ascending.”
“But the effects look stunning!” you exclaim, and again you’re right. The visuals are certainly stunning. They will leave you stunned — the same way a fisherman may whack his catch on the side of his boat to leave it stunned. The pure excess of visual information simply detonates in one’s eyeballs, leaving nothing but a smoking crater where one might hope to find any sense of location, scale, or significance. In the glowing retina burn that remains, the individual concepts might evoke the baroque and colorful styles of the trippy space-fleets that graced the covers of pulpy sci-fi books in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but they come whipping at, around, and into each other so fast there’s not even a second to digest, let alone admire, any one of them. A Japanese fighting fish is a beautiful thing to behold. A Japanese fighting fish hurled into a hurricane of flaming butterflies and hornets is a beautiful thing to run screaming from.
“Hey,” you protest, “at least it’s not an adaptation or a reboot. It’s an original story, right?” First: that’s a damned low bar, and we should all be ashamed that’s even a thing; and second: don’t be deceived. There’s something terribly suspicious about the fact that the heroine of this story is explained, frequently, to be an exact genetic replica of another, more powerful predecessor. The Wachowski siblings, who, despite the early promise of their filmmaking career, haven’t displayed two original thoughts since they left “The Matrix” franchise 12 years ago, have simply spliced together the DNA of a dozen other popular works — many of which were just remixes of each other to begin with. “Star Wars,” “Flash Gordon,” “The Fifth Element,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” — there’s not a single thing here we haven’t seen recycled before. The fact that they’ve lifted pretty much the entire core conflict from their own “Matrix” trilogy — that the Earth’s population is being farmed to feed a greater authority with their very lives — would appear almost as a wink to us that they actually know exactly what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it’s like noticing a person winking at you from across the room: the first time you may be flattered and intrigued, but by the sixth or seventh time, you realize maybe they just farted.